Statistician Nate Silver talks about election polls and baseball


    Nationally known statistician Nate Silver visited Northwestern’s Evanston campus this week. Photo by Sarah Collins / North by Northwestern.

    Nate Silver, founder of, a premiere public opinion polling analysis Web site, came to Professor Victoria DeFrancesco Soto’s “Latinos and U.S. Elections” class on Monday to discuss his expertise: politics and polls.

    A University of Chicago graduate, Silver works as a writer and analyst for Baseball Prospectus as well as for his own Web site. His accurate forecasts for the 2008 presidential election garnered attention, and Silver subsequently appeared on cable news networks and shows such as The Colbert Report to analyze and discuss poll results.

    Silver spoke with North by Northwestern about his job, baseball, and whether Obama would be a good infielder or outfielder.

    So how do you feel about your immediate post-election fame?

    I have a book I’m supposed to be working on that I haven’t really started on yet, but I have a contract so I’m going to have to get working on it soon. I’ve been surprised at how much attention on this has kept up after the election. While we’re certainly not getting as much traffic as we were before November 4, we’re still getting 100,000 plus visitors a day and people are paying attention. It’s been gratifying. I feel really lucky.

    You started out working on baseball. How did you make the jump from baseball to politics?

    I just started writing about it. That’s one thing about the Internet age: It’s very much a meritocracy. I started out writing under an assumed name and people liked it. They started listening. I would post diaries on Daily Kos, which is basically a big community-oriented site, and people would recommend certain diaries that are especially good[…].

    People are too hung up, I think, on qualifications. You don’t have to have, frankly, a political science degree to talk about politics; you don’t have to be a pundit. You just have to look at the world intelligently and fairly and work hard and be creative about it.

    Do you think there’s a relationship between your love of politics and your affection for baseball?

    They have the same dynamics in certain ways. A political campaign is a very long event and the baseball season, especially compared with other sports, it’s a long year[…]. People need to look at the long run when evaluating a baseball team. If the Cubs have a bad couple of games, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad team necessarily.

    Likewise, a candidate can have a bad day, have a couple bad polls that come out. We’re trying to maintain perspective, look at the long haul. Democrats, especially after 2000 and 2004, became very paranoid about any kind of polling numbers or anything[…]. We try to keep people calm as much as anything else. That’s kind of a baseball fan’s perspective, I think.

    One of your bloggers, Sean Quinn, just became a blogger in the White House Press Corps. What kind of effect do you think your site has had on the blogosphere and the world of politics?

    Obama has been very good about reaching out to the blogosphere. I think they understand that this is what got him elected[…].The line between opinion and reporting in the blogosphere is a little blurry, but it’s also become a lot blurrier in newsrooms. At least blogs are more honest about it in certain ways. This is the direction that I think we’re headed.

    There’s no lack of demand for news, but the kind of buttoned-down traditional newspaper style is not the way that gets people most involved, especially not people under the age of 40. I think they like something that has a point of view, that isn’t scrupulously neutral. Deep down you know who the writer is going to vote for, you see people on CNN or MSNBC and you know who they’re going to vote for. There’s a pretense that you don’t, but it changes the way you read it. I say on the site, I’m an Obama voter, so hopefully people can judge our arguments on their own merit hopefully.

    Is this what you saw yourself doing when you graduated from UChicago?

    Not really– it’s been a long path. I started out with a very normal consulting job, economic consulting, which is really boring. So I quit that to go work for this baseball company and actually play poker. This was during 2004 when there was a poker bubble [and] you could almost call it. It was very easy: You could sit at your computer and press buttons or go to the casino, just drink beer and play one out of every ten hands, and make money.

    Now, the game has gotten a lot tougher, people are less willing to lose money by trying to prove they’re good at poker when they’re not; but for a while, that was providing some income and then the baseball stuff. Then I had this other flash of inspiration about a year and a half ago, because of the campaign and some of the personalities involved and it took off organically from there.

    How do you feel when you get things wrong, in general, with any polls? Does it dishearten you or inspire you to create better algorithms?

    You have to know if you’re right or wrong for the right or wrong reasons. You can make right predictions for the wrong reasons. For example, if you had predicted at the beginning of the year that the Arizona Cardinals would be in the Superbowl, that would not make you a genius, that would make you an idiot. Even though it actually came to fruition, there was no rational reason to expect them to beat every other team in the NFC last year. You can sometimes make a good prediction and have it turn out wrong.

    We’re trying to explain human behavior, whether it’s how people will vote in the Oscars or how they’ll vote in the election or how baseball players will perform. Human beings are not predictable to do much of anything with 100 percent reliability. Whenever that’s the case, you’re going to have factors you can’t account for. We try to be honest: “Here’s what the probability is, here’s the chance we’re going to be wrong,” but you hope over time you have a better average of getting more right then you miss.

    If Barack Obama was on a baseball team, which team would he play for and what position would he play?

    I think he’d be the Tampa Bay Rays–they came up out of nowhere to be in the World Series, but what position…hmm…

    He’s a basketball player, so it’s a whole different vibe…

    I see him as a centerfielder. He’s fairly tall and he’s kind of a graceful athlete, I think he’d make a good centerfielder. I can’t imagine him being an infielder. I think he’d be a little bit awkward and kind of gawky, they tend to be shorter. But yeah, probably centerfield, I would think.


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